When Claire’s grandmother died last week, we dropped everything, spun our tires fast as they would go from Nashville up to Roanoke, Virginia, spent the last few days with floral arrangements, sinking a coffin into soft summer ground. The only time I feel lonelier than being with Claire these days is when we’re with her family—the way they pretend I’m just a friend, refuse to acknowledge the wedding bands on our fingers, like if they ignore it long enough, the years we’ve spent together will evaporate from beneath them, and us, too.
Claire’s granddaddy died before we even met, and since then, her grandmama kept this green and yellow parrot named Captain. He practically lived there on her shoulder, whether she was stirring a pot on the stove or planting daises in the front yard, that bird was there. She took it with her everywhere, and Claire joked that even the parrot knew what a sass mouth her grandmama had because the phrases it repeated most often were bullSHITthat’sbullSHIT and bless your heart —Claire’s grandmama had done a lot of bad-mouthing, as her mama put it. In her will, she left Claire the bird, said she wanted her only granddaughter to take care of the friend who’d kept her company since her husband died, and Claire’s mama had made the biggest fuss I’ve ever seen when she packed that damn bird in the backseat of our car, sent us back to Tennessee.
“She’ll get knocked off balance if she can tell you’re moving,” Claire’s mother explained, throwing a sheet over the cage. “You gotta cover her up, like this.”
And then she hugged Claire’s neck, whispered something in her ear I couldn’t quite hear, way she always does. She squeezed my hand, still wouldn’t hug me, not even after four years of me and Claire being married. Just: “Good to see you, as always, Libby.” She blames me; I know that—blames me for her daughter leaving home and moving to Nashville. For the two-year-old body we’d laid in the ground last November. This was the first funeral we’ve gone to since we buried our own baby. Burying a grandmother and a daughter in the same twelve months—well, I just can’t be mad at Claire if she’s mad at me right now.
We’ve barely spoken on the drive home from Roanoke. For ten long hours, asphalt and sky stretch in front of us, remind us of everything we’ve been running from. Every now and then, that bird in the backseat under that sheet squawks out bullSHITthat’sbullSHIT, bless your heart bless your heart. Claire shifts in her seat, tucks a loose lock behind her ear, and faces the window. I just drive, press my foot down harder and harder, anxious to put as many miles between us and her family as I can. Claire loves me, I know that. It’s not a phase, much as her mama would like to believe , even if I am the only woman Claire’s ever been with—she loves me. And the only times I ever doubt that, fear that one day I’ll wake up and she’ll just be gone, are the times I have to look in her mama’s face, know she wishes “better” for her daughter. Better than me.
bullSHITthat’sbullSHIT, Captain says. I change lanes at the interstate intersection. We’ve been quiet for almost three hours, not a word, and for a moment, just a second, I miss the buzz of her family because at least it isn’t this silence between us that creeps up now and then, stays a while. Bless your heart. I want to smack the bird for mocking me. I want to ask: Why in the hell would your grandmother leave us her bird, Claire? Of all the things she could’ve left us—bullSHIT, BULLshit.
I follow the curves that spit us into downtown, and I reach across the front seat for Claire’s hand. She pulls away. It’s soft, it’s quiet, it’s not forceful, it’s just—it feels like the last years we’ve spent together are falling away, falling somewhere, and I can’t reach out and catch them.
I turn the car off I-40, jerk the wheel a little too sharply, and the birdcage shifts in the backseat. Claire doesn’t seem to notice, but the bird finally shuts up. We pass the gas station where I kissed her for the first time, past The Listening Room where we’d had our first date. She was just here for a summer internship between her last two years of college, and me, I’ve been here since my mama moved our family here, back when I was starting high school, chasing the same dream everybody in Nashville’s chasing. But when Mama gave up, went home to Alabama, I stayed, swept up in the noise that was downtown Nashville, listening to the Friday night static like a radio playing outside my window each weekend while I stayed inside, poured myself and my pen across whatever manuscript I was copyediting that week.
The birdcage moves again in the back between our piled-up weekend bags, and Claire lunges to set it up right again. The bird says nothing, quiet as the night.
“Take it easy on the brakes, would you?” Claire says.
“This asshole just pulled out in front of me,” I return, gesturing toward the yellow cab that was now poking along in front of us between red lights on Third and Second.
“More perks to living in the city,” she mumbles, shifting her foot beneath her, and then stretching it back out again.
“Look, we’ve got that open house out at that place in Franklin this week, maybe—”
“What does it matter now?” she whispers.
Avery hangs between us, notes in silence we can’t see or hear, can only feel. Sometimes when I look in my rearview mirror, I think I see the back of her car seat, her small feet kicking up the seat, her curls spilling. Avery is why she wanted to move out of the city. I couldn’t bear to leave the porch that sat over the crisscrossed streets, the windows that framed the Batman building, the way the lights of the buildings looked like glittered stars that were closer, almost touchable. The music that tiptoed in through windows, the guitar chords that ran out into the streets. Nashville is alive. And it makes me feel alive, feeds an energy into my cells I haven’t felt before, like my bones are steaming with music and dreams and hope. When I wake up in Nashville, I wake up alive.
I start to reach for her hand again, think better of it, and clench the steering wheel. I swing into the driveway we share with neighbors. We live in a three-story building, split into three apartments, one on each level, with a shared backyard—just another reason I love Nashville. What other city could you live downtown and still have a house and—part of—a fenced yard? The bottom floor has been empty for a while now, the second floor belonging to a couple in their thirties who travel often. From the looks of it, they’re gone again, but their cars are replaced with four others, ones I don’t recognize.
Claire slams her door, clutching her cardigan tight around her. Saturday night has become Sunday morning, though quieter than most weekends in Nashville. It’s three o’clock in the morning, but a hush has already fallen.
“Libby!” Claire yells. Her head is in the backseat of the car, taking the birdcage out from beneath the sheet. “Libby,” she says, finally looking me in the eyes from across the hood of the car. “She’s dead.”
“What?” I run around to her side of the car, take the cage from her. She’s right. The green and yellow parrot lies at the bottom of the cage, still. Dead.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I yell. It’s my fault. It must’ve been the way I was driving, the brakes, the speed of the interstate, the sharp turns, something. I slam a fist against the trunk, press a hand to my forehead, and I can see tears already forming in Claire’s eyes, though I’m not sure if they are for her grandmother or the bird.
“Captain was all she left me,” she whispers.
I pull her into me, and this time, she lets me, doesn’t fight my touch, and I sink my nose in her blonde curls, tight and bouncy. She takes her glasses off her face, lays them on the trunk, wipes her eyes, and leans back into me.
“I know,” I say, and I keep stoking her big curls, and I think about how they look just like Avery’s curls, and then I start weeping too, but it’s not for the bird or her grandmother, and I realize her tears aren’t either. They’re for Avery, will always, always be for Avery, for as long as we both live.
“Hey, are you guys, like, okay?” a voice calls from behind us.
The motion light in the driveway clicks on, shines like a spotlight on—one, two, three, four, five, six, seven—girls, standing in a line in front of us. They’re all wearing pink sashes that stretch from their shoulders to their waists, something written in cursive diagonally. One wears a plastic tiara that keeps catching the light, creating little shimmers in the shadows. They’re dressed in tight, short skirts and dresses, brightly colored, all standing on tall shoes. The one in the tiara wears a tank top that reads BRIDE. And I could punch every last one of them in their perfectly-foundationed faces for breaking the one moment in weeks Claire has let me hold her like this. Just one more minute of her sinking into me. That’s all I want.
The line of girls in glitter and heels stands staring at us as Claire backs away from me, backs away from her grief. Jesus. Now I understand. Paul and Mary Beth have a fucking bachelorette party staying in their apartment right below us.
“Do y’all like, need some help?” another asks. She wraps her mouth around a penis-shaped straw that’s shoved in a Bud Light can, slurps until the can rattles.
“Yeah, what happened?” a blonde in sequined blue presses.
“Our bird died, okay?” I snap. “Please, just—get back to your party. Or whatever.”
“Oh my God, do you want us to like help you bury it?” one of them says.
“No. Don’t you have a bar to be in or something?” I ask.
“Rachel got us kicked out of Layla’s,” one says, rolling her eyes dramatically. Her sash reads MAID OF HONOR. “And Amber got us kicked out of Acme and WannaBes, so we figured maybe it was time to come home.”
“Sorry about your bird,” one says in almost a whisper.
Yeah sorry sorry about your bird poor bird sorry so sad so sorry. Their voices blend together like the music off in the distance, Broadway still rumbling, though growing a little quieter. They’re a mass of glitter and hairspray and tanned legs, the kind of group of girls you see on posters advertising for rush Greek weeks at universities. I want to hand out sashes that read: MALIBU BARBIE, POOL DAY BARBIE, WORKING GIRL BARBIE.
“Libby?” Claire says, turning back toward me: “Let’s bury Captain. Please.”
I sigh, move around her to close the back door to the car. I lift the cage, shove the sheet in a wad under my arm, and nod. “Okay. Fine. Let’s bury Captain.”
The bachelorette Barbies follow behind us in a single file line, their giggles replaced with solemn faces, a couple holding glittered plastic glasses that have run dry. Claire opens the gate to the backyard, and I trail behind with the cage. The bird’s eyes are still open, and when its body catches the light coming in from the street, it looks like it’s staring up at me, asking what are you doing with me? how’d I get here?
Avery’s tricycle is still out in the yard, tucked under the raised porch, the staircase that led up to the neighbors’ apartment, and then another wooden flight to ours. It’s rusting, but I can’t bear to throw it out. I can’t bear to look at it, either. She was riding it on the sidewalk one afternoon. A stray dog was walking on the other side of the street. I looked down just for a moment—dammit dammit dammit, it was a moment, it was a second—and then she’s off the trike and it’s on the sidewalk, abandoned; and then she’s in the street, and then a car is screeching to a stop; and then she’s lying still in the street; and then she’s lying still in my arms.
Malibu Barbie walks past me, her tanned stomach showing between a crop top and a tight black mini-skirt, standing a couple inches taller than me because of the few inches she was standing on. She doesn’t look at drunk as the others, and I guess she sees me looking at the trike, maybe my face is telling too much, and she asks me—
“You got kids?”
I shake my head. “No.” And that’s the truth. Now it is.
I tell Claire I’m gonna go upstairs, at least get some alcohol that isn’t Bud Light if we’re gonna do this, if we’re actually going to dig a grave in the yard with these drunken, glittery and stilettoed debutantes. She shrugs me off, waves a hand like she isn’t concerned, and as I move up the stairs, one of the Barbies produces a bottle of Fireball from God knows where. bullSHIT, I want to say. I want to stay in this apartment. I want my wife to let me hold her. I want the shrieks carrying outside to drown under my record player.
Upstairs, I take of bottle of whiskey from the cabinet, lean against the living room wall, the one lined with rows and rows and rows of my mama’s records, Loretta to Dolly to Wynonna and everybody in between. I slide “Burlap and Satin” under the needle. The window frames Claire down there in the middle of the Barbies, laughing like she hasn’t laughed in days. We hate girls like this. Girls who sip light beer from dick straws and squeal when frat boy country comes over the microphone at bar instead of The Highwaymen. Claire doesn’t confront pain well, never has, and I don’t need our therapist to tell me that. If Claire can wish it away, drink it away, ignore it away, she will. And I can’t let her do that to me, to us—so if this bird funeral is what she needs, fine. Fine.
I return with my bottle of Johnnie Red, don’t bother to offer Claire any as she tosses Fireball back into her throat. Out of the shed, I produce some wood and lighter fluid, figure we might as well have a fire. All I want to do is go upstairs, shower, climb in bed next to Claire, except I know she’ll be on the other side of the mattress, far from me—inches away, but so far. Sometimes, I’m sure we will survive this. Other times, I’m sure we won’t, that this is the beginning of the end. What will her parents say if we split up? Will they be happy? Happy I set her free so she can go back to how she was, maybe she’ll change her mind, marry a man instead of a woman who’s so set on living in the city that—
I situate the logs in the fire pit, drench them with the fluid, flick a match down, watch the flames spread across the wood. Claire has been saying for years what is ruining Nashville more than anything else—more than the flood of college students pouring in every year, more than the bars brimming with all the wanna-be stars, more than the traffic that suffocates the intersection between 40 and 65—are the bachelorette parties, how you can’t go downtown on weekends now without passing groups of them speeding by on those stupidass beer trolleys. They take over the bars, scream in front of the stage like middle school groupies, sob and barf in the bathrooms. Wasn’t just two weeks ago, Claire came home from Tin Roof—the one over in midtown, because she can’t stand the one on Broadway—with one of her friends from her office, carrying on about how this girl was wailing lying on the bathroom floor—he don’t love me anymore doesn’t think I’m pretty enough oh Jill whatamIgonnado.
But the truth is, even if I don’t wanna admit it, Claire was—or is—this kind of girl. Before me, before she moved here, hasn’t been but barely ten years since Claire wasn’t a girl with a wife and a dead daughter, since she was a girl with a sorority sweatshirt and a closet full of leggings. And lately it’s like sometimes she slips out of being the girl I fell in love with, starts being somebody she used to be, somebody she was before me, somebody I don’t know. When she finally told her mama about me, her mama cried, told her it was a phase, she wouldn’t be like this—be like this—always.
The fire licks upward toward the sky, and I can see her face through the smoke, sitting next to Working Girl Barbie—a dress with a blazer over top of it, knee-high boots—laughing at something I can’t quite hear. What I do know is I haven’t heard her laugh in a long time. Least, it feels like a long time. Or maybe it’s just that she doesn’t laugh around me anymore. I’m not really sure which.
While they’re laughing, drinking, forgetting the dead bird, I take the shovel from the shed, start digging a hole over by the back of the fence, thinking how I’m gonna have to explain to Paul and Mary Beth when they get back how their bachelorette girls they rented their apartment to for the weekend insisted we bury a bird in the backyard. When the hole is deep enough, I let the shovel rest against the tall wooden fence, stand back and watch the eight girls circled around that fire, and they’re alive in the backyard and Nashville is alive out there behind us and in front of us and inside us.
But Avery isn’t.
Avery isn’t alive.
I clutch my stomach, like a phantom pain I couldn’t possibly have. Sometimes when I think of her, my insides cramp and my stomach feels like it might fall out, and I’ve never been pregnant, Avery didn’t come out of me, but sometimes it’s like I can feel her living in me, trying to get out. Like I’m remembering a pregnancy I didn’t have. That I’ll never have. Sometimes, it feels like Claire’s the one who has the right to the most sadness, the most pain—she was the one who carried Avery, the one who had the sperm shot up inside her in a doctor’s office, the one who got to feel our baby moving around inside her. Maybe if I’m honest, real honest, I’d tell you that I’m jealous she had nine extra months with our baby that I’ve never have. That I wish Avery’d been a part of me the way she was a part of Claire.
I sit down on the log benches Paul built around the firepit. I take Claire’s hand. She pulls away again, pulls beer down her throat instead.
“So how long y’all been roommates?” Pool Day Barbie asks, sliding her huge plastic red-star-shaped shades back on top of her head. Her crop top looks like a bikini, or one of those sequin bras I remember Selena wearing in concerts back when I was a kid.
“We’re not roommates,” I tell her. I lean down, brush dirt off my jeans from digging the hole. My T-shirt has dirt smeared on it, too, and I’m angry at myself for feeling out of place next to these girls, like I, too, should be dressed up for this backyard funeral. “We’re married.”
“Married?” Prom Queen Barbie says. “Oh, you’re like—”
“They’re lesbians, idiot, shut up,” Pool Day Barbie says too loudly, nudging her friend so hard she loses her balance a little.
“Oh! We went to a gay bar night before last, and it was super great,” Prom Queen says. “Because guys like, don’t hit on us there.”
“That was the first bar we got kicked out of this weekend,” Working Girl Barbie says, her voice crisp and crackling like the fire. “Somebody was filming boys making out.”
I suddenly wish Captain was here to say: Bless your heart.
“Y’all got kicked out of a lot of bars this weekend, huh?” Claire asks, and I want to nudge her just as hard.
“Technically, yes, but we did so much other fun stuff,” Bride Barbie gushes. She’s in all white: white bride tank, white shorts, white platforms, white nails, white bride sash. “We rode on the trolley, we went to some really cute shops, rode the beer wagon thing—”
“We karaoked at WannaBes until—surprise—Amber got too rowdy,” Working Girl Barbie interjects, throwing a glance at Pool Day Barbie, who sticks her tongue out, then shrugs. “But we sang ‘Friends in Low Places,’ and it was just like, amazing.”
“It was awesome,” Malibu Barbie agreed. “We like, love Tim McGraw.”
“What did you do, Amber?” Claire asks, crumpling a beer can, tossing it aside, and reaching for another. She cracks it open, takes another long drink. I wish she would stop engaging. I wish her grandmother had never died and left her that stupid bird. I wish we were inside arguing, because at least then, we would be talking. At least then she’d have to face me, look at me. Look at me like she hasn’t since—
Pool Day Barbie sighs dramatically, rolls her eyes, and laughs. “Okay, well like, the bartender was really super cute, right, and he said he was a songwriter, and so I asked him to tell me more about his career and stuff, and—”
“She jumped on the bar and started dancing like it was Coyote Ugly or some shit,” Cowgirl Barbie interrupts. Cowgirl Barbie is my least favorite—the kind of girl I want to stop downtown, sit down, explain: We don’t dress in Daisy Dukes, cowboy hats, pigtail braids, and boots. That’s a tourist thing.
“Which is exactly what the old fat bastard who escorted me out said,” Pool Day Barbie laughed, slapping her own tanned leg. “Coyote Ugly is down the street, ladies!”
“Hey, let’s bury this bird if we’re going to,” I say, maybe too loudly, over the rumble of giggles at the fire. They all stand up, setting their cans and cups and dick straws down, brushing themselves off. I lead them toward the hole, lift the Captain out of her cage, and wrap her in the sheet that hid her death from us riding down I-40. Gently, I place the sheet-wrapped parrot into the hole, take the shovel from its place, and clear my throat.
Next door, I can hear George Jones climbing out of the neighbor’s window into the darkness. One of the girls has retrieved another case of Bud Light from upstairs, and Ball Gown Barbie—who’s dressed in a ridiculous floor-length ensemble, entirely too much for the likes of Broadway—is passing them out.
“Oh, my God! I’ve never heard this version of this Chris Stapleton song before! It’s like, kinda good!” Cowgirl Barbie says. You’re as smooth, she sings.
“Chris Stapleton covered that song,” I grumble.
“No way, he like, writes all his own music,” Pool Day Barbie says. I sink my teeth into my own tongue, wash my words down with whiskey.
“A toast to the bird who has left us!” Bride Barbie calls out into the night.
Claire takes another, pops it open, turns it up to the stars. “Libby?” she says, and it’s the first time she’s looked me in the eyes since we were in the driveway. “Will you deliver the eulogy?”
I suck in a breath, determined not to show my frustration, my annoyance. I say over the hole: “Here lies Captain, parrot of Lillian Johnson, passed on to Claire Brighton. He was a good bird.” bullshitthat’sbullshit. “I loved this bird.” bullshitthat’sbullshit. “And we will miss you, Captain, for all your days.” bullshitthat’sbullshit. “May you rest in peace, Captain.”
Claire raises her can up in front of her, says, “My grandmother loved this here bird. She took her everywhere she went. She was a good friend to my grandmother.”
Prom Queen Barbie nods respectfully, puts a hand on her heart. “Here’s to the best friend a grandmother could have! Here’s to Captain!” And they all begin clinking cans together and hollering, Captain, Captain, my Captain!
The bachelorette Barbies put their arms around each other, around Claire and me, and Bride Barbie starts swaying, and the others follow. She starts singing, and I’m taken aback first by her song choice, and then by the sweetness and sharpness of her voice:
I’ll fly away old glory, I’ll fly away. When I die, hallelujah by and by, hey, I’ll fly away.
The other Barbies join in with her, and I can still hear her voice through the rest—it’s glittering, striking, beautiful, like Patsy Cline moving through an old turntable speaker. I can see one solitary star in the sky through the lights of Nashville, the static of a winding down downtown lingering in the briskness of the April night. As the Barbies keep swaying, keep singing, Claire takes her arm off of my back, slips her fingers through mine instead.
Kathryn M. Barber was raised in the mountains of the Tennessee/Virginia state line near the Carter Fold. Though her time living in Nashville was brief, she considers it her very favorite home. Kathryn holds an MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and an MA from Mississippi State University, where she currently teaches composition, literature, and creative writing. She works in various editorial roles at Ecotone magazine, Southern Humanities Review, Press Pause Press, and Jabberwock Review and is a former Lookout Books intern. You can find more of her work at kathrynmbarber.com.